National Security & Defense

Europe Rediscovers Borders

Migrants crossing the Greek-Macedonian border near Idomeni. (AFP/Getty)
Good fences make good neighbors, after all.

We have had some fine foreign-affairs thinkers in our time: Henry Kissinger, Richard Pipes, Daniel Pipes, Norman Podhoretz. But as a feckless European leadership tries to figure out what to do about a flood of Middle Eastern refugees (at least some of whom probably are not refugees but ISIS infiltrators), take a minute to appreciate that underrated American foreign-policy guru, Robert Frost:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down. I could say “Elves” to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

One has to admire the Burkean conservatism at work there: Confronted with the poet’s idealism, the flinty atavistic old farmer, ever mindful of the proverbs of his fathers, sets about rebuilding the damaged stone fence because it is there. Frost, it is worth noting, wrote “Mending Wall” some years before G. K. Chesterton (both men were born in 1874) published his famous advice to never knock down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place.

The European Union is one of the great fence-demolishing projects of our times, and it is not without its merits. There are some persuasive arguments for governing the movement of European capital, goods, and people under a very liberal regime; and, given the unhappy history of Europe in the 20th century, there’s a heaping helping of idealism at work, too, and as William F. Buckley Jr. once observed: “Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”

RELATED: On Europe’s Migration Crisis, the Global-Governance Crowd Dictates Wildly Unrealistic Policies

The free movement of people called “López” and people called “Dubois” across the Pyrenees is a rather different proposition from the free movement of people called “al-Nasseri” across the Mediterranean and over the Bavarian Alps. And thus the German experiment with open borders in the face of hundreds of thousands of illegal arrivals from the Middle East lasted just over a week. Germany has announced the implementation of border checkpoints, as has Austria. Across Europe, especially in the east, there are protesters on the streets bearing placards reading (in so many variations) “Go Home!” Leaders in the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and elsewhere are resisting efforts under way in Brussels to impose immigrant-resettlement quotas on their countries.

#share#Different peoples have different countries for a reason, and that’s why there are — or should be — fences or their equivalents. Whatever your assessment of the merits of Switzerland vs. Syria, Switzerland is Switzerland because it is full of Swiss people, and Syria is Syria because it is full of Syrians. As in the United States, the fingers-in-the-ears refusal of responsible European authorities to recognize this basic fact of life — that human beings are not interchangeable widgets — cedes the field to irresponsible parties: our Trump, their Le Pen.

An uncomfortable question: If you were the citizenry of a European country without a large, unassimilated Muslim minority, why would you want one?

Berlin has pleaded for “solidarity” in the face of the crisis, studiously avoiding the question “Solidarity with whom?” Sweden, with its population of just 9.6 million, is expecting somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 applications for refugee status. Sweden likes to describe itself as a “moral superpower,” which is what you become when you don’t have the responsibilities that attend real power. (Indeed, those Americans who speak wistfully of a multipolar, or even “post-American” world order, generally give the impression of wishing the United States could be divested of its globe-spanning interests.) Poland has shocked polite society by making it clear that it would prefer a small number of refugees, if any, and that they be Christian rather than Muslim. Another uncomfortable question: If you were the citizenry of a European country without a large, unassimilated Muslim minority, why would you want one?

RELATED: Putting an End to the ‘Refugee Crisis’

For Sweden and countries in that weight class, considering the immigrant crisis almost exclusively as a matter of refugee management is natural — events in Damascus and elsewhere are well beyond the effective Swedish sphere of influence, Bashar al-Assad, his Hezbollah allies, and his al-Qaeda/ISIS antagonists all having proved remarkably resistant to the deployment of moral power, even moral superpower, over the years.

Which brings us to the question: What to do about all this?

We are instructed to sympathize with the refugees, putting out of our minds such reciprocal expressions of sympathy in the Islamic world as the dancing and jubilation that greeted the murder of thousands of Americans on September 11, 2001 — No, no, those were totally different people, these refugees are totally different people who come from 18 or 20 miles away! Or even farther! But of course we are not monsters, and we do sympathize with the ordinary people caught in an extraordinary horror as ISIS goes about trying to establish a new caliphate.

So, again the question: What are we going to do?

#related#To be clear, the question isn’t: What is Sweden going to do? Or, What is the Czech Republic going to do? Or, really, even, What is Germany going to do? Germany is a rich and powerful nation with a long history of military prowess, but Germans are not much inclined toward foreign interventions these days. The question is, What is the United States going to do about this? After the fall of the Soviet Union, Europeans thought they had the power to retreat into comfortable moral superpowerdom, as though the sum total of Western involvement and Western interest in the rest of the world were the construction of water-treatment facilities in sub-Saharan Africa (a fine and worthy undertaking, to be sure). We may look back (some of us conservatives with red faces) on George W. Bush and his nation-building democracy project, as unimpressive as that strategy appears in retrospect, and foreswear another adventure on those lines. But what’s the next big idea? Donald Trump dreams idly and daftly of seizing Iraqi oil fields; Senator Rand Paul is working very hard, without much in the way of persuasive results, to get his native libertarian non-interventionism to jibe with the realities of ISIS et al. The mainstream Democrats have settled upon the philosophy that they don’t need a philosophy, because everything that is wrong with the world is, and forever will be, George W. Bush’s fault, and, besides, somebody somewhere in Kansas is being rude to a homosexual or an abortionist.

Good fences make good neighbors. The Germans are wishing they had one right about now. What about us?

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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